Shaky Razorbacks to face daunting opponent in Alabama

Cody Hollister /

With five games down and seven to play, I really should feel excited about the Arkansas Razorbacks at this juncture in the season.

The Hogs are 4-1 and ranked in the Top 25 at No. 17 in the Coaches poll and No. 16 in the AP poll. Junior quarterback Austin Allen is playing great football, better than most would have imagined. Allen’s got a great pack of receivers led by Jared Cornelius, Drew Morgan and Keon Hatcher, when healthy, and one of the best tight ends in the nation in Jeremy Sprinkle to pass to.

Rawleigh Williams III is emerging as a solid SEC-type running back, and Devwah Whaley just needs more carries to fit into the same category. Both rush for over 100 yards Saturday in the 52-10 victory over Alcorn State with Williams rushing for 126 yards on 13 carries and Whaley picking up 135 yards on 9 carries, including a 75-yard touchdown run.

“It’s good to get two of our rushers over 100 yards, and also throw [freshman] TJ (Hammonds) in there,” Arkansas coach Bret Bielema said. “He’s a very exciting player, very quick. It was nice to get guys like La’Michael Pettway a touchdown, along with Cody Hollister. I thought defensively we got some guys in there that needed to get reps. They proved that they could play in there.”

Bielema said Whaley is progressing to the point where the Hogs can have a three-pronged attack at running back including senior Kody Walker.

“This week we went to the transition that Rawleigh [Williams] is our starter, but we want to give Devwah [Whaley] more carries,” Bielema said. “He gets better every game. I’ve had more success when three guys can handle that workload.”

Whaley said he is beginning to feel more and more comfortable in the Hogs’ backfield.

“I have spent a lot of time working hard and preparing for the job,” Whaley said. “Rawleigh Williams and Kody Walker are like two big brothers. They help me with whatever questions that I have and they are helping to shape my skills as a player. I look forward to getting even better and making Arkansas proud.”

The highlight of the game defensively was Henre Toliver’s 70-yard touchdown return of an interception. It was the fourth interception of his career. It’s the Razorbacks’ third interception return for a touchdown of the season. Cornerback Ryan Pulley took one back 25 yards against Texas State. Linebacker Brooks Ellis returned an interception 47 yards for touchdown against TCU.

“A pick six is always nice, and to have three of them this year with three different players,” Bielema said. “With an interception or a blocked field goal going the other way, we always have the athletic advantage going the other way. They created it and made it happen.”

On the surface, the Razorbacks’ situation looks considerably better than it did at this point the past two seasons. In 2014 the Hogs were 3-2 at this juncture, and last year Arkansas was 2-3, so 4-1 is improvement. Right?

I’d like to say “yes,” but with the defense still struggling and Arkansas’ short-yardage running game remaining suspect, I don’t know. Looking at Arkansas’ remaining schedule reminds me of looking down a well. You know it’s dark and deep, but you just don’t know exactly how dark and deep it is.

On one hand, it’s exciting to think of the opportunities the Razorbacks have immediately in front of them with No. 1 Alabama and No. 14 Ole Miss visiting Razorback Stadium the next two weekends.

However it’s a little bit daunting knowing that the Hogs could be headed to Auburn in three weeks for a critical road game, sitting at 4-3 and having lost three of their last four games dating back to the Texas A&M loss on Sept. 24.

If the struggles in the running game and on defense weren’t enough to make a fan antsy, the issues with place-kicking and kick coverage are still apparent. Other missed details continue to bubble up from game to game.

Cole Hedlund missed another field goal Saturday on a 44-yard try. He’s 4 of 6 on the season, which is OK, but Saturday’s attempt just looked poor. You never know when a field goal or an extra point is going to be the difference in the game. A missed field goal and an extra point by the Hogs proved to be the difference in 2014 when the Crimson Tide escaped Fayetteville with a 14-13 victory.

Offensive tackle Dan Skipper came up with his seventh blocked field goal of his career against Alcorn State, but the Hogs weren’t all on the same page to take advantage of the situation. A blocked field goal is a live ball, but the Razorbacks were slow to react to the situation. Against a more capable team, that situation could have ended in disaster.

Certainly No. 1 Alabama is a more capable team. Kickoff is set for 6 p.m. with ESPN televising the game.

“Alabama has obviously been special for a long time,” Bielema said following the Razorbacks’ victory last Saturday. “[Alabama coach] Nick [Saban] has obviously done an unbelievable job, but I told our players in the locker room there’s going to be 11 players from them and 11 players from us and whoever plays better is usually the one who wins.

“We have to play a four-quarter game. They are a tremendous football team. It’s very fun to bring them in an environment when we’re going to be at home. We are going to have a live crowd show up that’ll be ready to rock and roll.”

The issue the Razorbacks face against the Crimson Tide is that an opponent can play a relatively flawless game, but Alabama still can beat them based on talent and depth.

“Preparing for Alabama is not like preparing for any other team,” Allen said. “They are physical and well coached.”

Austin assured that the offense would be ready to perform.

“The offensive line will continue to get better,” Allen said. “We are a confident with a lot of seniors that have played Alabama four times, now. I think we look fresh and fast. We are ready.”

Freshman defensive tackle McTelvin “Sosa” Agim is excited for the opportunity to play the No. 1 team in the land.

“This win gives us great momentum heading into the Alabama week,” Agim said following the Alcorn State victory. “There’s no celebration. We turn our heads straight to Alabama. You have got to prepare for them. They are a great team.

“I met a lot of those guys during my recruitment process. It’s going to be a great feeling to go against them. Alabama is the No. 1 team in the nation, SEC Champions. That’s where we want to be. That’s why I came to the SEC, to play the best.”

It should be an exciting week for Razorbacks fans, too, but as the old line from Star Wars goes, I’ve got a bad feeling about this.